THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (September 7-September 13, 1814) PART III
Battle for Baltimore.
September 12, 1814
At 3 a.m. the British fleet in the Patapsco River south of Baltimore are unloading thousands of British soldiers and sailors — including about 500 Colonial Marines, runaway American slaves who have joined the British who promised them freedom from servitude in return. The overall commander, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, originally planned to depart the sultry and (in his mind) fever-ridden Chesapeake Bay after capturing and burning Washington. But unfavorable tides, storms in the Atlantic and the urging of his two sub commanders — Major General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn — persuades Cochrane to try and take Baltimore, the most pro-war city on the Atlantic Coast and home to numerous privateers (state-sanctioned sea-going raiders) that have been wreaking havoc with British shipping for the past three years.
By 7 a.m. more than 4,000 troops are ashore and Ross decides to begin marching while the rest of the troops, cannon and equipment are being landed and organized. Baltimore is about 14 miles away and Ross is anxious to take his men across this neck of land between the Patapsco and Back rivers before it gets too hot and the Americans realize they are attacking from the land side.
Brigadier Samuel Smith, the overall American commander in Baltimore has sent the 3,200-man 3rd Maryland (militia) Brigade about half way between the American lines and the British landing point, as a tripwire to warn of the British advance and to slow it down. Brigadier General John Stricker, the brigade’s commander, posts his men across a narrow neck of land only about a half mile wide between two creeks, straddling the road from North Point to Baltimore. Stricker sends a small unit, consisting of two companies of the 5th Maryland Regiment and less than 100 members of the Baltimore Rifle Battalion, even farther forward to surprise the British as they advance.
It is the Americans who are surprised when thy run into the lead elements of the British force. The 5th Maryland companies, standing in the middle of the road, fire two volleys and flee. The riflemen, with more accurate weapons, take cover in the tall grass and behind trees to fire at the British. One or two of their bullets strike the British commander, General Ross, mortally wounding him. Colonel Arthur Brook takes command.
By 2 p.m. the British force reachStrickler’s position and are surprised when the militia units do not run when fired upon by artillery and Congreve rockets as they did at Bladensburg. While the 5th Maryland, 27th Maryland and the six-gun Union Artillery battery stand their ground but the 51st Maryland begins to waver and finally flee, followed by the neighboring 39th Regiment. With hisleft wing collapsing,Strickler fears the now outnumbered 5th and 27th regiments will be overrun by the British who mount a bayonet charge. At 3:45 p.m.Strickler orders his troops to retreat a mile back to a line where the 6th Maryland is standing in reserve. The American losses are 24 dead, 139 wounded and 50 captured. By contrast British suffer 46 killed, 295 wounded. Brook decides not to pursue the Marylanders, leaving his attack on Baltimore, still 7 miles away, until the next day to give his hungry, thirsty and exhausted troops a rest.
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As the British prepare to attack Baltimore by sea, defenders block the entrance to the city’s inner harbor by sinking old ships between Whetstone Point — where Fort McHenry stands guard — and Lazaretto Point, where an artillery battery was set up. A chain barrier was stretched across the space and a string of barges, and as a last line of defense, the sloop-of-war Erie. General Smith, a Revolutionary War veteran and U.S. senator from Maryland began strengthening Baltimore’s defense — especially Fort McHenry — when the British began raiding the Chesapeake shoreline in 1813.
There were about 1,000 Army soldiers and militiamen inside the fort. Smaller earthworks fortifications were set up west of the five-sided masonry fort to prevent the British from sailing around the Fort McHenry and attacking Baltimore by land from the south. Most of the seaside fortifications are manned by some 1,000 sailors, Marines and Commodore Barney’s flotilla men, many of whom were black freemen.
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Shortly after daybreak, the British begin bombarding Fort McHenry and some of the shore batteries. Five of Royal Navy’s eight bomb ships are drawn up two miles from Fort McHenry. Thy have fearsome names like Devastation, Terror and Volcano and can hurl 200-pound shells up to two-and-a-half miles. The Americans briefly return fire but even their biggest guns can’t reach more than a mile and a half. There is also a ship, the Erebus, firing Congreve rockets. The bombardment continues all day and into the night where “the rockets’ red gleaming” illuminated the fort and its enormous 15-star, 15-stripe flag. Farther down the Patapsco River, American lawyer and poet Francis Scot Key has a good view of the attack but it is one he can do without. Key and John Stuart Skinner have sailed out to the British fleet to negotiate the release of a Maryland physician, Dr. William Beanes, who was taken prisoner for arresting at gunpoint British deserters and looters. The British agree to release Beans but keep all three men aboard ship until the battle is over.
Fort McHenry’s commander, Major George Armistead estimates 1,500 and 1,800 projectiles are fired at the fort. Only about 400 fall within the compound. The noise and concussion are almost unimaginable, however. At one point the bomb ships move a half a mile closer but they are now within range of some of the American big guns and after taking some hits, they are ordered back to their original position. Cochrane, the overall British commander sends a message to Brooke, the Army commander, saying the Navy can’t penetrate Baltimore’s waterside defenses and won’t able to support his attack on Baltimore’s fortifications. The message doesn’t reach Brooke for hours.
General Smith has between 15,000 and 16,000 troops under his command, including 1,000 sailors, Marines and flotilla men. The American trenches flow all around Hampstead Hill, the American strong point. By 9 a.m. the British land forces have come within sight of he American lines, which are stronger, more extensive and heavily armed than Brooke had been led to believe. After assessing the situation and estimated the Americans may have 20,000 men and more than 100 canons, Brooke probes for a weakness in the America lines but is repulsed very time.
With only 4,500 men, Brooke knows it,s a big risk to attack an entrenched, larger force. However, with fire support from the Navy (he still hasn’t gotten Cochrane’s note) Brooke begins to think he might be able to pull it off. After a council or war, Brooke and his officers plan to launch a nighttime assault at 2 a.m. September 14.
Next Week: Star Spangled Banner and Fort Erie Holds On
Entry filed under: National Security and Defense, Naval Warfare, Special Operations, Technology, THIS WEEK in the War of 1812, Unconventional Warfare, Weaponry and Equipment. Tags: Army, Battle of Baltimore, Battle of North Point, Brigadier General Samuel Smith, Fort McHenry 1814, Major General Robert Ross, Marine Corps, Navy, Star Spangled Banner, Topics, War of 1812 Bicentennial, War of 1812 Chesapeake Campaign, War of 1812 in Maryland.